Four Parents Walk into a Room
Two middle-aged couples—Linda and Richard, Gail and Jay—come together around a white table in a sterile multi-purpose room of an Episcopal church, crucifix on the wall, to talk about a very difficult problem involving both their teenage sons. “Table, chairs, Jesus watching us,” says one participant. “It’s great.” It will be some time before we learn what the problem is—a tragedy six years ago that they share. Details about it emerge only later, and gradually.
There’s suspense, tension, and surprise in that learning process; it’s the essence of the film. But another of its pleasures—if there can be pleasure in a discussion of a problem of this magnitude—lies in observing how each of the protagonists approaches the moment, and what each of them embodies. Linda (Ann Dowd, a bit old as an actress at 66 to have a teenage son, but with the perfect face for the role), is all empathy, all the time; her husband Richard (Reed Birney)—they appear to be separated, or estranged—seated upright, hands folded, in a suit and tie, is not without empathy, but his is couched in a rhetoric of reason and the conclusion that knowledge will not, and cannot, yield a useful answer.
Just as the men are the standard-bearers of reason, Gail and Linda are, rather stereotypically, avatars of emotion.
On the other side of the table, Jay (Jason Isaacs) counsels restraint, enjoining his wife Gail to avoid “interrogation,” as they’ve been advised by their therapist, and then employing it himself. The “rational” side of the discourse is represented by the two men, though Jay at times can be unconstrained emotionally. He comes equipped with a reservoir of knowledge and analysis, at once sociological and scientific, that ultimately fails him in the quest for truth and resolution. Gail (Martha Plimpton) seethes with the rawest of feelings, and it’s her cathartic transformation that brings whatever comfort the situation can muster. Just as the men are the standard-bearers of reason, Gail and Linda are, rather stereotypically, avatars of emotion.
The script touches upon, but thankfully does not deal with, the standard solutions to the issue, those that are regularly raised by activists, politicians and the media.
The script touches upon, but thankfully does not deal with, the standard solutions to the issue, those that are regularly raised by activists, politicians and the media. Indeed, by presenting Richard and Jay as inadequate exemplars of reason, it engages the idea that knowledge and understanding are inherently incomplete and unsatisfactory, and that a solution is unknowable. Reason is not enough. It’s the women who physically embrace. Richard’s “I hope we were able to help” is woefully weak, and even thoughtless. And he is the first to leave; “I should really get back.”
Despite the setting, Fran Kranz’s script is for the most part silent on religion, and when it’s not, it’s critical or ironic. The neurotic church lady Judy, a minor character over-played by Breeda Wool, appears to be a stand-in for a brittle Episcopalianism.
The screenplay probes the issue of the “value of life,” suggesting (or implying) that all lives have value. If that’s the case, then there’s no debate to be had, and if not, then the film presents us with a question that’s virtually impossible to answer.
“Mass” is eerily prescient—similar to “Happening” (a French film on illegal abortion that we reviewed last month) though on a completely different topic—in addressing a problem that is front and center at this moment. To reveal the problem in this review would be a spoiler. “Mass” is all about the slow release of information and the backgrounding of information that if revealed early would distract from the trauma of the parents.
The four principal actors are superb (the film has received 43 awards and 79 nominations, many for acting), and Plimpton is brilliant as the anguished Gail, whose state of mind is at the center of the drama. Some will find her turn, and the story’s resolution, to be too programmed and too complete, as well as inconsistent with the film’s overall perspective on religion. The same could be said of Jay’s fascination with the voices of the church choir singing “Blest Be the Tie That Binds.” One wishes, too, that first-time director and writer (and seasoned actor) Kranz had been more restrained in his use of the tissue box, the flowers and, especially, the ribbon-on-the-fence device. At the same time, the script is masterful in its focus on the parents, rather than on the tragedy itself.
It’s hard to imagine a more honest performance than Plimpton’s, and hard to imagine a better, more powerful, more complex, and more daring presentation of “the problem” than “Mass.”
Stars: 3.5 (out of 4)
Director: Fran Kranz
Starring: Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs, Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Breeda Wool
Country: United States
Runtime: 111 minutes
Other Awards: 43 wins and 79 nominations, including a BAFTA for Ann Dowd for Best Supporting Actress
Availability: Widely available for purchase, rent, or streaming on multiple platforms, including Amazon Prime, Redbox, and Hulu. See JustWatch here.
Lead image: Martha Plimpton, right, with Jason Isaacs as Jay, is brilliant as the anguished Gail.